I remember back when I worked in biology, some of the labs used animal models, like zebrafish or fruit flies, for their research. Some of my family members even worked with mice, helping to develop insulin treatments for diabetes that would mean fewer needles for children; or treatments for burn victims that directly helped the children at the Shriner’s hospital across the street. Their work really inspired me. Partly because of the ways it was helping so many people, of course. But also because of the way they talked about the mice.
I’m not here to defend or condemn experimental mouse models. What I want to talk about today is sacrifice. Because in these labs, the taking of an animal’s life is never described as killing. Every single time an animal dies, it is called a sacrifice. Every time.
It is a sacrifice. Not just of the animal’s life, although that is huge. It’s also a sacrifice of the researcher’s willingness to do tough things in their commitment to try to bring healing to others. Day after day, animal after animal, people make, and perform, that double sacrifice. How hard it must be on them. What a weight of responsibility they bear. Of course sometimes experiments are wasteful or unnecessary; of course science gets it wrong sometimes. Maybe a lot of the time. Either way, the act is always named: sacrifice.
We don’t use the word often. It literally means ‘to make holy or sacred.’ Some sacrifices are joyful: a sacrifice of praise, when we set aside time to sing and pray, when we ‘Take Time to be Holy.’ Let us continually offer to the Holy a sacrifice of praise, writes the author of Hebrews, the fruit of lips that openly profess the Holy name. Even our laments are a sacrifice of praise, our cries the ultimate expression of deep trust in the eternal, mighty arms of Love. We set apart moments for gratitude, and moments for lament; because sometimes, as with those mice, it’s a blood sacrifice.
Some sacrifices are chosen freely. But some are chosen reluctantly; and as all women know, still others are forced, unwillingly. Sometimes, we can see that a sacrifice contributes to a greater good. And sometimes, things are sacrificed out of ignorance, or fear, or for convenience, or greed. The animals we eat – ‘slaughtered,’ ‘caught,’ ‘harvested’ – but aren’t they all sacrificed, too? Not to mention the plants and other creatures involved, and the sacrifices – sometimes mortal – of the humans who get that food to our tables. Of course, the most exploited farm workers are the women. Slavery, trafficking, abuse. Where is the sacredness in that?
See, sacrifice happens on either an altar of idolatry or an altar of Holiness. And that is the curious thing about sacrifice: we can’t always easily tell. The lives of the Hebrews were being sacrificed on an altar of empire greed. Thus the blood sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb. Imagine, struggling just to survive, what a courageous sacrifice it would be to kill a lamb before it was full grown and could offer milk and wool? This radical act of trust, that something new would be born, even in the midst of trauma and horror, led the Angel of Death to ‘Pass Over’ their homes, so they could escape to freedom.
The greed of another empire sacrificed Jesus’ life as well. Another blood sacrifice, so Jewish Jesus-followers also called him a Paschal Lamb. These communities believed, with their whole beings, that there is something stronger than greed, empire, and death. Something so powerful that even a blood sacrifice, even a gruesome one, even the execution of a brown skinned, gentle man, where he publicly suffocates to death while being mocked and scorned, even that kind of sacrifice can birth something pure and healed and new, through radical acts of trust.
That is the power of Holiness – to take things that feel hard, scary, even irredeemable, and birth something new. All we can do is keep trying, each day, to trust; to release our fear and dedicate ourselves to the covenantal life. To honor the Holy with our wealth, with the firstfruits of all our labors [Prov 3:9]. What if we all did that – let the very first thing we do with anything we earn or grow or raise be dedicated to something holy, something that brings justpeace? Maybe at first it would feel scary, or like a burden. But – then – what if that sacrifice transformed us, and set us free?
What sacrificial leap of faith is calling to you? Because we need them all, more than ever. I leave you today with a Eucharist, or ‘thanksgiving,’ in which the black oil blood of the sacred Earth flows out in a sacrificial wound on an altar of fear, convenience, ignorance, and greed. As our planet loses oxygen and suffocates under rising carbon dioxide, as those who speak out for the suffering continue to be mocked and scorned, let us remember this Earthly, bleeding Paschal Lamb each time we break bread and share cup: one body, one world. A Holy Communion – to commune, with one another and all Creation – that invites us to trust as the ancients: Holiness is birthing healing, redemption, liberation – even in this.
Each night, Earth gives itself up for us
it takes bread, in praise to you the Source of all
breaks the bread, and shares it, saying,
‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.’
Likewise, Earth takes a cup, in praise to you the Source of all
and offers it, saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the New Covenant
poured out for you and for all for the healing of all wounds.
Do this as often as you drink, in remembrance of me.’
And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts
in the Sacred Incarnate Creation
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice
in union with Earth’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:
Earth has died. Earth is risen. Earth will rise again.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee, PhD is an ecological ethicist and the founder of Climate Resilience Chaplaincy. She studies intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.